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Dystopian fable for the 21st century using animation, claymation and live music
Oxford Playhouse, Tue 13 June - Sat 17 June 2017. Photo credit: Bernhard Mueller

June 15, 2017
Alchemy at the Playhouse

Theatre company 1927 have something of a reputation to live up to. Known for their intelligent, quirky, jazz-laced productions which incorporate live action, projection and stop-motion - they were the group behind an avant-garde staging of Mozart's Magic Flute that had critics starry-eyed with wonder. The Animals and Children Took to the Streets had audiences similarly wowed: here was something creeping, fizzling, and rip-roaringly new.

So my friends and I, approaching the Playhouse on Tuesday night, are full of anticipation. Golem, the company's current production, is an updating of an unsettling old Prague tale – a rabbi creates a golem (a magically-powered man-shaped creature) for protection, but, as is the usual way of these stories, his creation goes haywire, and soon citizens are rushing for succour from the golem instead.

Tonight's production captures all the offkilter vim of this ancient tale, but gives it a 21st century reboot. Narrator Annie (Genevieve Dunne) – speaking with the benefit of postdiluvian hindsight, though we don't yet know what's gone awry – is a punk enthusiast living with her weird brother Robert (Philippa Hambly) and won't-take-any-rubbish Gran (Rowena Lennon). The cast is completed by the versatile Nathan Gregory and Felicity Sparks, who become, variously, punk-band members, dull colleagues, and cabaret act Les Miserables.

Robert's existence – a nerdy job and trips to tripe restaurants near the red light district – gets a boost when he buys a golem (rendered here in stop-motion as a sort of well-hung Morph). But soon Golem is getting his own ideas; and tonight's avatar gets smaller, sleeker – and spouts more advertising – with each iteration. Soon every home will have one, and that's an increasingly worrisome thought.

What really makes this show is the weird, mutating dreamscape of its staging. Projected scenery is so beautifully choreographed that we're happy to believe we've entered some sort of fourth dimension – one in which walls shimmer and reform, real actors climb out of 2D surfaces, and music is not only aural but visual. The live jazz band lends a madcap bravado to the crescendoing chaos which is unfolded, origami-like, onstage.

The elements that combine in this show create an experience which is wholly unusual: it's not quite like being at the theatre, but as if we've somehow been made part of the show itself. It would have benefited from an interval, and there are a few occasions where repetition of a joke or initially-wowing scenery make a little of the magic rub off. But the streets of Old Prague whispered rumours of alchemy as well as golems – and tonight the separate elements of this play spark in each other's company, and together make something that looks quite a lot like theatrical gold.

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